Left for Dead

Harry’s Place links to Stumbling and Mumbling‘s thoughts on why the Left is in such a shambles in the UK now. (It’s no different here.) The comments on both sites make worthwhile reading.

[In the 80’s] the Left gave up on the idea of the working class as a revolutionary force, and looked instead to what they called “new social movements”: women, blacks and gays (yes – to many the three were somehow homogenous!)

This had three disastrous effects, which we are seeing today.

First, there was a privileging of identity politics over class. When combined – as it often was – with slack-jawed moral relativism, this led to the Left’s tolerance of reactionary beliefs as long as they are expressed by non-whites.

Secondly, the feminist slogan “the personal is political” has led to the belief that government should get involved in everything.

Thirdly, the left’s refusal to think about class, especially when combined with a tendency to cringe before the rich and powerful, caused it to naïvely regard bosses not as chancers and exploiters, but as “leaders.” This has given us a target-driven bureaucratized public sector which is plundered by “consultants.” It has also given us a government unable to fight against bankers.

That’s often because government officials are in the same class as the bankers and share the same rewards. Marxism indeed made the concept of class a foremost issue. But in practice today, it’s become so fossilized and by-the-book that new ideas are rarely allowed to intrude.

There’s a worldwide financial crisis going on. People are hurting. It’s the second decade of the 21st century and time for new ideas on the hard Left.

One comment

  1. I don’t know where you’ve been at, Bob, but this straw man argument you are building comes across as a chronic winge.

    The main complication of the ‘working class’ focus has been the post war economic boom which, combined with the ideological inroads of the Cold War rolled back trade union militancy and the perceived primacy of class issues.

    The “new social movements” grew directly out of the national liberation struggles of the same period — Africa, Asia, Latin America, etc which impacted most especially in the US with the rise of the Civil Right Movement and with that  the coincidence of the baby boomer generation. These movements grew out of that phenomenon but the engine room wasn’t so much identity politics but the massive impact of the movement against the Vietnam War. With the withdrawal of US troops the radicalisation subsided and either people dropped out of struggle or found routes to accommodation.

    Ideologically, there was a major push to transcend its radicalism by dint of new theories — with Post Modernism being the latest of these fads — but a classical Marxism still remained an inspiration primarily for small currents who suffered bitterly in isolation from the working class as the locus of struggle had not returned to class issues and the sixties mass movements were in ebb.This is why so many of these became sects — the isolation promoted a certain circle spirit and inwardness.

    Granted that the world has changed — especially since 1989 — but no mass workers or consistently radical left party exists in many countries to reflect and harness the new possibilities. This is especially the case in Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada and the US.

    I agree that given these changes it’s “time for new ideas on the hard Left.” But I’d assume that you would at least go looking for them rather than simply complain about their absence.

    I think there are indeed some key “new ideas” on offer that enrich the Marxist tradition and represent a novel synthesis:

    (1) The new rise of the democratic movements of Latin America exemplified by the processes being embraced in Venezuela and Bolivia but also the recent successes in El Salvador. This blog treats Chavez as a Latino clown and refuses to look at the Bolivarian process and the new ALBA momentum seriously. (So what can I say? Are you purposely blind?)These movements are marked by some key elements — a very broad and very pluralistic democracy which is respectful of Indigenous people and the environment and one that relies on a mobilised population rather than simply an occasionally voting one.
    (2) A re-connection with the rich ecology of Marxism which stretches not only back to Marx and Engels but was buoyed up by a succession of biologists and related scientists who have contributed so much to our understanding of ecology — a concept that was first described (and term invented) by a Marxist biologist. In North America , the two main proponents of this tradition, that come to mind, are Richard Leewontin and the late Stephen Jay Gould. At a theoretical level the work of John Bellamy Foster and the team at Monthly Review have consolidated and revived not only a rich Marxist ecology (and a rigorous materialism) but also have remained consistently rooted in a classical Marxist economic analysis of capitalism. Eg: Foster/Magdoffs book: The Great Financial Crisis.
    (3) In more countries than you ever mention, Marxist currents are working to build and broaden new left parties which are not dedicated to a boutique ideology. This phenomenon is weakest in the English speaking countries. In Germany for instance Die Linke out performs and has transcended the now conservative role of the German Greens and in Italy, France, and Portugal new and very buoyant formations have broken out of the left marginalisation in a way we have not seen since the thirties.
    (4) All these elements have led to a rethinking of revolutionary and radical politics and a new synthesis is being born among a layer on the far left. For me Marta Harnecker‘s `Ideas for the Struggle’ is an attempt to give this process of experiment and rethinking a concrete form. But it is difficult to describe the various coal faces being worked at. What we are seeing, contrary to the quote you posted, is a movement away from relying purely on identity politics to a broader political synthesis mainly because “identity politics” by itself hasn’t been strong enough to forge the kind of changes being demanded. However, while the working class remains non combative — as it definitively is in the English speaking countries — these changes will have to find their own way by dint of true grit and experience. So it is still a hard struggle. We also have the overbearing complication that the mass antiwar movement is in idle mode and a confidence in mass struggle has been weakened.In this regard and going back to Harnecker, I believe that the beginnings of a solution has to be not just a movement solution but a party one. How we do that in each country is going to be both difficult and different. But whats’ at stake isn’t so much “new social movements” but “new social parties”.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.